The Long View
Who Was the Richest Person Who Ever Lived?
The emperor of Mali lived on top of a 14th century gold mine so prolific that it probably made him the richest person who ever lived.
By John Steele Gordon
One of the most intractable problems in economic history is translating the value of money over time.
What would $1 million in, say, 1816, be worth in today’s money?
The consumer-price index, based on the price of a basket of commodities, works as a measure of inflation over small periods of time. But while the CPI has actually been calculated back to the beginning of the 19th century, such a period has seen the creation of a completely new and vastly richer economy.
The basket of commodities that people actually buy has changed radically. Servants were cheap in 1816; lunch could be bought for a nickel; the rent on a luxurious town house in Manhattan would have been under $100 a month. But clothes, which had to be handmade, were very expensive, as was private transportation (hence the phrase “carriage trade”).
The best we can do is to ballpark it: In 1816, $1 million would have made its owner one of the richest people in the country, easily in the top 10 of the Forbes 400 list, had there been one then.
Indeed, a net worth of $1 million (or one million pounds sterling) was so rare in 1816 that the word millionaire had only just entered the English language.
So if grasping the economic meaning of $1 million a mere two centuries ago is difficult, how can we understand the wealth of a man who lived in the 14th century? One way is to see how his spending affected an entire national economy.
Musa Keita I (circa 1280 to circa 1337) was the ruler of the Mali Empire in west Africa. Taxing the many camel caravans that crisscrossed the Sahara Desert every year produced considerable imperial income. But two local commodities had made his country very, very rich: gold and salt.
In the 14th century, Mali produced about half of the Old World’s gold from three highly productive mining regions. Bags of gold dust functioned as money in the kingdom, while nuggets were stored in the treasury as the property of the emperor.
Salt, an essential commodity for many purposes in the Middle Ages, came from a great salt pan near Taghaza, in the north of the present day country of Mali. Salt was so abundant and cheap there that slabs of it were used to construct buildings. But when loaded, two slabs to a camel, and shipped south to coastal regions where the commodity was scarce and expensive, salt became very valuable indeed.
MANSA MUSA, AS HE IS USUALLY remembered in Western sources (Mansa means “emperor”), was a devoted Muslim, and one of the obligations of the faithful, if they can afford it, is to make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lives.
Mansa Musa could afford it, and in 1324 he went.
The journey from the Mali empire’s capital at Timbuktu to Cairo is 2,347 miles, and it is a farther 800 miles to Mecca. A camel caravan can travel only about 15 to 30 miles a day, and the huge size of Mansa Musa’s caravan may well have made its pace even slower. The round-trip journey would take two years to complete, although there were several extended stops along the way.
Ancient and medieval chroniclers habitually exaggerated numbers, but, according to these sources, Mansa Musa had a personal bodyguard of 500 soldiers, along with more to guard the entire caravan. There were also servants, cooks, camel drivers, porters, and livestock herders.
Altogether, the number of people accompanying Mansa Musa was certainly in the thousands, though it is not likely to have been as high as 60,000, as some of the chronicles claim.
These chronicles also claim that there were 12,000 slaves on the pilgrimage, each carrying, among other things, a four-pound gold bar. And 80 camels, it was said, each carried 300 pounds of gold. That would make a total of 36 tons. At the current price of gold, that would be more than $1.5 billion worth of the precious metal, an inconceivable sum in medieval terms.
As he made his way to Cairo, Mansa Musa distributed alms to the poor and gave presents to local rulers to assure their friendship. In Cairo, he made the sultan a gift of 50,000 gold dinars, more than 7,500 ounces of gold. Not surprisingly, the sultan was happy to lend Mansa Musa his summer palace for a three-month stay.
WHILE IN CAIRO, THE EMPEROR and his vast entourage spent gold so lavishly on slave girls, clothes, food, and artwork that he flooded the Egyptian economy with the stuff, causing its price to fall by as much as 25%—an inflation in the same degree in prices in the Egyptian economy, one of the Muslim world’s largest and most prosperous.
Although Mansa Musa took out a substantial loan in gold on his way back from Mecca, perhaps to reduce the quantity in circulation and stem the inflation he had caused, the contemporary chronicles say that it was 20 years before the Egyptian economy fully recovered.
Mansa Musa did not spend his money solely on wine, women, and song. He also founded mosques and schools along the route of his journey. And he brought back scholars to help found a university in Timbuktu that was soon one of the leading academic centers in the Islamic world. He also brought back architects and artisans to build libraries, palaces, and mosques, many of which still survive. At its height, the university had about 25,000 students, and the library held perhaps a million manuscripts, the largest in Africa since the destruction of the great library of Alexandria in ancient times. Many of these manuscripts still survive, despite recent incursions by Islamic terrorist organizations.
So while we cannot translate Mansa Musa’s wealth into modern terms with any specificity, Forbes Magazine’s researchers had no hesitation in calling him the richest man who ever lived, and ballparked his modern-day net worth at $400 billion.
JOHN STEELE GORDON is the author, most recently, of Washington’s Monument: And the Fascinating History of the Obelisk.